03.03.13, Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature

Main Article Content

Jean Dangler

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.013


Ramey, Lynn Tarte. Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature: Imagination and Cultural Interaction in the French Middle Ages. Medieval History and Culture, vol. 3. NY,NY: Routledge, 2001. Pp. xiii, 120. ISBN: 0-415-93013-8.

Reviewed by:
Jean Dangler
Tulane University

Lynn Ramey's new book is a lively, provocative study of the different portrayals of Christian-Muslim (Saracen) relations in medieval French literature. Ramey shows that historical and cultural vicissitudes in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries prompted varying depictions of the Muslim other, largely in medieval epic and lyric. Ramey does not propose a progressive chronology in the Muslim's portrayal, but shows that the varying depictions mostly circulated simultaneously in the medieval period (101). Chapter one introduces the historical background and theory in preparation for more detailed textual analysis. Ramey links the portrayal of the Muslim as a denigrated other to the emerging French nation-state and the rise of the vernacular, but also explores the Muslim's frequently ambiguous and ambivalent literary depiction.

She frames her book according to four main questions: 1. Are the "Saracens" only fictional, or do they reflect the lived experience of their time? 2. How does the "Saracen" contribute to the definition of the Christian subject? 3. What is the role of gender in the portrayal of the "Saracen"? 4. What is the relation between literary and non-literary texts, such as sermons and legal writings? (4) Ramey mainly considers these problems in medieval epic (chanson de geste), lyric, and the hybrid romance epic (the chanson de geste about war and romantic love). In chapter two, "Discovery, Desire, and Destruction: East Meets West," Ramey analyzes the twelfth-century Chanson de Roland and its predictable portrayal of the Muslim as an evil other who should be eliminated. But, following the ideas of Abdul R. JanMohamed and Jacques Lacan, she also shows that the Muslim is an unstable signifier, since the Roland's author highlights the Muslim's positive qualities in his contrast to Christians. Ramey further demonstrates this ambivalence in the Gormont et Isembart, where she argues that the Muslim's attractiveness at once compels and threatens the French audience. Epic authors aimed to correct the failings of their own society in the Christian-Muslim contrast, and ultimately to show the French as superior and triumphant. But, since the epic did not permit a wide variety of portrayals of Muslim-Christian relations, Ramey believes that medieval French authors sought other genres to portray them.

Chapter three, "Songs of Desire: Encounters through Crusade," demonstrates that the troubadour lyric of William IX, Cercamon, and Jaufre Rudel presented complex depictions of the other. Ramey suggests that the topic of amor de lonh (love at a distance) shows the physical and linguistic gap between the poet and the beloved. This lack of communication "is the site of cultural difference," as language permits the exploration of cultural, sexual, and linguistic complexity. Chapter four, "New Songs with New Rhythms: The Romance Epic," argues that with the rise of the chanson de geste in the twelfth century, the malleable figure of the Muslim develops into a hybrid like the romance epic itself, since Muslims are depicted as unruly beasts and lovely women. Ramey analyzes such texts as Aliscans to show that gender takes on a new significance as the Muslim woman becomes the central focus of romance epic in her portrayal as powerful, independent, and most importantly, white. But this seemingly approving description is double-edged, since the Muslim woman constitutes "the site of cultural appropriation for French men" (50).

In chapter five, "Forging Relationships: Law, 'History,' and National Identity," Ramey argues that twelfth- and thirteenth-century writers emphasized the conversion and integration of the Muslim over his or her destruction. The chanson de geste altered historical events as narrated in chronicles in order to send specific messages to French audiences. For instance, the Siege de Barbastre conveyed information about marriage, kidnapping, rape, and cultural interaction. According to Ramey, ethnic and generic (law and romance) cohabitation marked the imaginations of many writers, who integrated attractive characteristics of Muslim culture into their formation of the nation. Such traits were often related to women, who were described as powerful and wise, desired and desiring, and lovely and foreign.

Chapter six, "Questioning the Myth: Obstacle and Rejection," shows that writers of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries also began to regard Muslim assimilation as less appealing. Ramey believes that changes in romance epic from the twelfth through fifteenth centuries demonstrate this shift. She focuses on travel in the chanson de geste to illustrate that geographical movement permits writers to comment on East-West relations in different ways. Travel is literal and straightforward in the defeat of Muslims in the Chanson de Roland, while Aucassin et Nicolette, a work that Ramey views as a parody of the romance epic Floire et Blancheflor, portrays the rejection of Islam and Arab culture through more fantastic journeys.

In chapter seven, "Transitional Figures," Ramey argues that the exotic East constitutes an unstable, fluid space that makes transformation possible (83). She portrays the cross-dressing of Nicolette in Aucassin et Nicolette, of Floire in Floire et Blancheflor, and of Alis in Lion de Bourges as transitional passages that generate the realization of each character's innate gender, sexual, and racial identities. Journeys into foreign lands reinforce French national identification, since they effect the characters' reintegration into French society. Ramey further emphasizes the rejection of Muslim culture in romance in the tale of Prester John, and in a comparison of the thirteenth- and fifteenth-century versions of the Fille du comte de Ponthieu.

Chapter eight's concluding remarks lend coherency to the diverse materials and analyses in this wide-ranging study. Ramey believes that the variety of depictions of the Muslim lent to the French imagination a multifaceted other who could signify in many ways. From the twelfth century on, French writers employed and altered literary genres in order to portray the cultural complexities of Muslim-Christian relations. They grew less interested in this issue from the late fourteenth through fifteenth centuries, when they became concerned with an internal threat, England, rather than with the external Muslim danger. In order to complement Ramey's sophisticated and nuanced analysis, further investigation into the possible influence of Arabic textual models, genres, and codes on French literature might yield insight into literary portrayals of medieval Muslim-Christian relations. Ramey acknowledges that French authors appropriated positive features of Muslim culture in their renderings, but maybe they also responded to prominent Andalusi genres and codes.

While Ramey briefly mentions the well-known early medieval lyric transactions between Iberian al-Andalus and the north (19), I wonder if Arabic textual and performative models do not have further effects on medieval French literature, and on the development of the other. For instance, gender and linguistic shifts, as well as homoerotic sex and desire are integral features of many Andalusi muwashshah and zajal poems. Is the elasticity of identity and desire in these strophes recast by French writers in their depiction of the Muslim other? Perhaps the muwashshah and zajal would be more convincing sources for the fluidity of identity in French romance than the one-sex theory that Ramey cites. After all, as Joan Cadden has shown, unlike the modern focus on genitalia as the site of gender/sex speculation, medieval physicians relied on a variety of distinguishing features in their discussions on the topic, such as corporeal heat. If French authors implicitly respond to renowned Andalusi textual constructs, perhaps they seek to refashion complex Muslim alterity. In the case of Aucassin and Nicolette, Ramey seems to indicate that the rejection of Nicolette's masculine, Muslim identity is necessary for her integration in French society as feminine and Christian (86). But, in accordance with obscured gender limits in Arabic and Andalusi lyric, perhaps Aucassin's love for Nicolette is a multiple desire for her as feminine and Christian, and as masculine and Muslim. Or, maybe the parodic element of Aucassin et Nicolette that Ramey notes is the caricature of this multifaceted desire as represented in Muslim culture. Ramey further concludes that Aucassin et Nicolette, Floire et Blancheflor, and Lion de Bourges do not ultimately reinforce gender and ethnic blurring, but instead they entrench homogeneous Christian and Muslim categories of identity (91-92). Perhaps the Andalusi influence of the muwashshah and zajal, as well as the sway of sexual models of domination and subjugation in Arabic lyric deserve further attention in this regard. For, I wonder if the mutability of positions of power and subservience in Andalusi lyric is imitated and commented on in some way by French authors.

The only two quibbling comments that I have are related to methodology. First, I wonder why Ramey uses the term "Saracen" throughout her book, which I believe is outdated and bears a pejorative connotation, and second, the connection between the remarks in the introductory first chapter and the final conclusion could have been more direct. These issues aside, Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature offers a valuable analysis of the intricate portrayals of Muslim-Christian relations, and their correspondence to differing generic codes. Ramey tacitly questions the frequent modern understanding of the "other" as a denigrated subject worthy of marginalization and expulsion, and explicitly shows that medieval French authors illustrated a variety of ways in which Christian subjects related to Muslim others. She further connects these literary portrayals to the vacillating cultural and political climate of the medieval period.

Article Details

Author Biography

Jean Dangler

Tulane University